by Scott K. Fish
There’s an old song that says: “Talk about a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how are you going to make your dreams come true?” In a world where eighty-seven percent of the people have no dreams it is always a pleasure, and a memorable experience, to get to know a person like Max Weinberg. Max is a dreamer. Since the winter of 1980 when I first met Max, up until Bruce Springsteen and The “E” Street Band filled the 20,000 seat arena at the New Jersey Meadowlands on five consecutive nights in the summer of 81, I’ve been trying to put my finger on the center of the band’s popularity. It has to be the dream!
There’s a message to Springsteen’s music, a thread that says it’s okay to dream, that you can have anything you want out of life as long as you’re willing to pay the price. Jon Landau called this music the future of rock and roll. I would hope that the attitude of Max and the others is also the future of rock and roll. It’s the toughness of the Marlboro Man—but it’s also the ability to cry. It’s hope and optimism, but above all else it is the ability to dream. In a band of dreamers, Max Weinberg is the King of the Big Beat.
MW: I was born on April 13, 1951 in Newark, New Jersey, and I grew up in the suburbs of Newark. It’s just like a million other places in the country, I guess. In the Fifties, rock and roll was just getting started. I had a lot of energy and was lucky enough to have parents and sisters who helped guide that energy in the right direction.
I was always listening to records as a kid. At two years it was Harry Belafonte and Jamaican records. I was really into the beat of music, and then I was about five years old when Elvis happened big. My sisters were into Elvis and I started hearing that music and I just loved it. I really remember that as a kid, I wanted to play an instrument.
My parents were very musically inclined. My father plays violin, my mother was always singing songs, my sisters played piano, and my sister Nancy still plays. So there was always all different kinds of music around the house.
When I was in second grade, my cousin gave me a bass drum. It was like a thin Scotch marching drum. I beat the hell out of it and that was fun. I was starting to get directed into an area of music. In third grade, 1958 or ’59, they held auditions for the school band. I wanted to play saxophone but I had braces on my teeth! I couldn’t play a wind instrument. They said, “Do you want to play violin?” “No, I don’t want to play violin.” The only instrument that no one else picked that I could physically play was the drums. So, in Marshall School in South Orange, 1958,1 was the only kid in my third-grade class playing drums. I played the bass drum with my right hand, snare drum with my left, and played two beats: “boom-chick, boomchick” for 2/4, and “boom-chick-chick” for 3/4. That’s all we did and that’s how I got into it.
When I was ten, I started private lessons with Gene Thaler, a local drum teacher who worked great with kids. He really developed a rapport with them and got them interested in drums as an instrument. We went through all the rudiments, and I took lessons with him until the ninth or tenth grade. At the same time, rock was going through a real strange period. Elvis was drafted and it was about two years before the Beatles happened. What was happening was Chubby Checker and these Philadelphia vocal groups. It was rock, it was real watered down, but if you listen to those records, the rhythm sections are swinging, cooking, and they’re fantastic!
The first band I had was in 1961. My friends Douglas, Billy and I put together a band: trumpet, clarinet and drums. We played “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Three little kids practicing, rehearsing, and working on songs. Meanwhile, I was still taking lessons, rock was leading up to the Beatles, and I was getting better as a drummer. My “set” was the bass drum my cousin gave me and a snare drum he gave me that was almost a tenor drum. I also had a little brass cymbal. It wasn’t much of a set. I had a real cheap bass drum beater. There were no spurs on the bass drum so I had two cardboard boxes on each side of it to support it.
In ’63, my folks saved up $125 and bought me a three-piece, blue-sparkle pearl Kent drumset. It was a great little set of drums. At the end of our first year, our band knew four songs and we didn’t play anywhere. This was before guitar groups came in. The Village Stompers were a popular group with “Washington Square,” and I was listening to, and loved, “Take Five.”
My parents owned and operated a summer camp in the Pocono’s for years and we went there every summer. There was a guy at camp who turned me onto “Take Five.” The camp was really nice. I had the city suburban life and the real country life. The camp exposed me to a lifestyle that I wouldn’t have normally been exposed to. But, the day I got that drumset was like the happiest day of my life. I thought it was really cool to be a drummer; much cooler than being a place kicker for the New York Giants, which is what I wanted to be up to that point.
The first paying gig I played was in sixth grade. I think the band got one dollar to split four ways, but it didn’t matter because we were playing in public. People liked us and all the little kids were coming over to us afterwards. We were cool. That’s when I wanted to be a musician. That’s when it really started. That summer I went away to camp. My father hired a sort of Doo-Wop group that played guitars and had a drummer. I used to sit in with them. I was twelve and they were sixteen or seventeen from Canarsie, a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn. Here I was playing shuffles with a semi rock and roll band, and I played “Stagger Lee”! The end of that summer of ’63 was my big moment. My counselor at camp played trumpet, and he worked up an arrangement on “Flight of the Bumblebee” and I played a drum solo. I was on borrowed drums and I played a solo in front of the whole camp. . . and people applauded. It was fantastic. Again, I knew I wanted to do this.
Three months later the Beatles happened and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was released. After the Beatles, man, I wanted to get guitars in our band. I met my friend Jeff Kawalek at a Bar Mitzvah in ’64. He was a guitar player. I said, “Wow! You’re fantastic. That’s the best thing I ever heard in my life! Let’s start a band.” So we did. Jeff was the best man at my wedding last June, and now he owns “Boogie Hotel,” a great recording studio in Port Jefferson, New York. We called ourselves the Epsilons. In 1964 the Beatles were just on Ed Sullivan and we had a band already: Jeff, his friend Steve Cumerland, and myself. No bass player. We eventually found another guitar and then a sax player. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing, but we were learning songs and it was great! We were plugging the guitars into tape recorders, singing through tape recorders, and rehearsing in my parent’s attic. Actually, at that time Beatles songs were too hard to learn, so we were playing a lot of Dave Clark 5 and some surfing tunes like “Wipe Out,” and “Walk, Don’t Run.” We got hired to play a dance at my junior high school. Kids were so into Beatlemania that they flipped out over us. It was so exciting that I said, “Man, I want to do this for the rest of my life.” A twelve-year-old kid dreaming.
Things changed when I got to be fifteen or sixteen. I started playing lounges, got my ABC card, and started playing schlocky music. But, I always played. My father used to drive us all over the place. My parents did so much for all the bands I was in.
SF: That’s important.
MW: It is. A parent could despise their kid being in music or really help the kid. Either one could fuel an intense desire within the kid to be in the music field. Bruce, for example, had a lot of problems with his music in that respect. I think his father kind of gave him a hard time. I think it just fueled a more intense desire on Bruce’s part. My parents helping me really fueled my desire. They saw music as a worthwhile pastime. I was making a couple of bucks; I was having fun; I was learning how to do something. I was channeling this nervous energy I had into something constructive. In the Sixties it was important to do that. That whole music revolution of the Sixties channeled a lot of nervous energy of musicians who are now 30-35 years old, into something that really helped people instead of being destructive.
My whole philosophy even then was that you’ve got to be able to play everything. You don’t just play rock, you don’t just play jazz—you play drums! I tended towards rock because that’s what I was good at, but if someone called me to do any kind of date or gig—I’d do it. I might not do it as well as somebody else, but I’d give it a shot. I did every kind of gig you can imagine as a young kid: Bar Mitzvah’s, weddings, cruises, a lot of gigs in the Catskills. At sixteen I was playing at Grossinger’s hotel for the whole summer, which was a big gig back then. It was terrific experience. I was making seventy-five dollars a week plus room and board.
In high school I was mainly with a band called The Flock from about ’68 to ’71. We played a lot in the Plainfield/ Scotch Plains area of New Jersey. After some personnel changes in ’69 we changed the name to Blackstone, signed a contract with Epic, and released a record that shot to the bottom of the charts with a bullet. A lead weight! There’s still copies floating around. I think we sold two thousand copies. We signed with a producer who had about twenty bands. His philosophy was: “Sign as many bands as you can. Screw them as badly as you can. Maybe one’ll hit.” But, it was great experience. I wanted to be Ringo, you know. That was my dream. I wanted to be playing for big crowds and in a good band. When Blackstone broke up in 1970, I was nineteen. It was really a crushing defeat for me because I put a lot of time and effort into that band and it just fizzled away. I figured, “Aw, this is never going to happen.” From the age of nineteen until I met Bruce, four years later, I freelanced. I had a central core of musicians that I played with. We did every kind of date you can imagine. All the schlockiest gigs and some good gigs. Mostly one nighters. We never made any money; I was living at home and studying with Bernard Purdie. My drumming was getting better, but my career just didn’t seem to be developing the way I wanted it to.
Was I going to end up a club-date drummer? I didn’t want to do that. I still had my dream, but I couldn’t do it by myself. I had to be in a band. For four years I played every kind of date imaginable, and it just made me more determined to be successful in some area of music where I could respect myself—be it studio, or getting a band and touring.
SF: Did you ever talk to Bernard Purdie about your frustration?
MW: Oh yeah. All the time. I don’t know any drummer who isn’t frustrated. Most musicians are frustrated, but especially drummers. Drummers, by and large, have to depend on other musicians. Learning any instrument is very solitary, but being a drummer is like the old joke: “How many guys in your band? We got ten musicians and a drummer.” Fighting against that kind of thing is hard. I talk to drummers about this and guys who know themselves will admit to it.
It took me a long time to find myself. I’ve luckily been able to experience what I have over the years in this band. I’ve been able to find myself as a drummer, to find out what I really like to do, and have that be what I’m really good at—which is a terrific feeling because it takes away some of that frustration. When I get on stage, I don’t want to be anyplace else. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. Exactly! And it’s painful sometimes. It’s physically painful and it’s emotionally painful. But, as emotionally painful as it can be, it’s also that rewarding.
My wife, Becky, knows. I’ve come back from the recording studio practically in tears. I mean, at the bottom. It’s not all peaches and cream. It’s real hard to make the transition from kid, to talented kid, to talented amateur kid, to talented semi-professional amateur kid, to semipro, to pro, to veteran-pro, to seasoned professional, which is what I am now. I can go into any situation and play because I have my conception. Whatever the situation is, I can pretty much fit in.
SF: You probably know guys that you grew up with, who maybe were better players than you were, but they stopped playing and you went on to become a success. What’s the difference between you and them?
MW: Enthusiasm! I wanted to do it. More than I wanted to be anything else. When I was a kid I wanted to be Ringo. When I was older I wanted to be a respected drummer.
I was always known as “Max the Drummer,” because I started when I was such a little kid. Pretty much everybody in Bruce’s band were the guys in the bands who really wanted to make it; who really would do anything that they could respect themselves for to make it.
I have a friend who lives on Long Island who was a “monster” drummer. I had my four basic beats and he had all these fancy syncopated polyrhythms and funky boogaloo beats. He was a great drummer but he lacked something in his personality. He never got ahead. He had an attitude. I never had an attitude about my playing. I’d play anywhere! It didn’t matter whether I got paid or not.
I think the reason I got with Bruce—because there were probably better drummers who auditioned—was because I really wanted to be in his band! I really wanted to play drums with that kind of rock band. It was the rock band I was looking for all my life. Just a simple rock band playing straight-ahead rock. Chuck Berry. Beatles. Shuffle-inspired rock and roll. That’s the kind of stuff I wanted to play. During those four freelancing years I played in the pit for Godspell for about a year on and off. I had a lot of reading training from the “Borscht Belt” circuit. I went in as a substitute and cut the gig right away. Just sat down and read it. My reading isn’t as good as it was then because I don’t have to read too much anymore. But, I did that show and I really didn’t like it. It was good careerwise because it put me in New York in touch with some New York musicians, but it was so boring. The same thing every night. You could read a book while you were playing the show.
Enthusiasm is the main thing. Really work at it. You have to work at it. Still, when I’m home I practice everyday and I take drum lessons with Sonny Igoe. Ev ery day before a concert, I practice my rudiments to get my wrists limbered up. I get there an hour to two hours before the rest of the guys in the band. I tune my drums and I buy my own cymbals.
I like to stay in touch with my drums. If I was off for a couple of weeks and someone called me to do a wedding, I’m sure I’d do it. It’d be fun. I like to play that kind of stuff. We played my wedding!
SF: Is it difficult to relax when you’re recording?
MW: It’s hard—but you have to. I used to sneak into Columbia records. An engineer friend used to let me watch sessions from the side. I used to go there every night and hope that someone would let me in to watch a session. It was a good learning experience because a studio can be real intimidating. Up until halfway through The River, the studio really intimidated me. You have to maintain this balance between tension and relaxation. Tension can really make you concentrate and be precise with your playing, but if you’re not relaxed it makes it very hard. I listen to the records I’ve played on and I can tell exactly where I was relaxed and where I wasn’t; where I rushed a passage or maybe screwed up a tempo. I’m still working on my drumming all the time. I’ve made more progress in the last six months than in the ten years before that.
SF: We were discussing a time problem that you had to correct. What was that all about?
MW: Basically it was a problem that presented itself when we got into the nakedness of recording. We’re a very excitable rock and roll band. We’re a tight studio band now, but for a long time we were a great act, a tight band, but not a real musical band. We were playing very high energy, frenetic rock and roll. The records reflect that. The technical side wasn’t happening anywhere near as much as our feeling side. Our technical side now is really up there with our feeling side, because we worked on it. Myself in particular. It came down to a very painful night in the studio where Bruce said that my time keeping was a very specific problem that I should address myself to. This was two years ago. Immediately, from that moment on, I devoted myself to the problem.
I started taking lessons with Sonny Igoe. It changed my approach to drumming. It also made me more mature; my rite of passage. Getting with Bruce was a whole new learning process. We started to change. We became men. We became veterans. We became wise. And we also became tasteful and interested in what to leave out of the music. The space between the beat is what matters, not the beat. If you put that beat in the right place every time, that space is going to be right. Space is what music is about. Leaving space. We have a seven-piece band. It’s a big band. We all have our positions in that band.
My position is to keep time and be that center stripe down the road. An anchor! The best thing someone can tell me is, “Man, that was rock steady.” You know Bernard Purdie on Aretha’s “Rock Steady”? That is rock steady. That is what rock drumming is all about. Keeping that groove. A lot of music that’s being recorded now—there’s no sense of “laying back,” no sense of keeping it solid. It’s just FAST! As fast as you can play. And that’s okay for a while, but man, someday you’re going to get to a point where you’ve got to get beyond that. You’ve got to reach another plateau.
I used to sit in my back room with a drumset in sweltering heat with no air conditioning, and I practiced before a session with a metronome. Man, I wanted to get in that pocket. It was one element of my drumming that I hadn’t gotten yet. You can say you’re the greatest drummer in the world, but if you can’t control your time—you’re not happening! That’s the way I feel about it. I don’t care who you are. If you can’t control what you’re doing in speeding up and slowing down—a faulty sense of timing is lack of control. That’s all it is. It’s being unrelaxed. Well, I sat for many hundreds of hours for two years with a metronome practicing really slowly.
SF: That’s hard.
MW: It’s very hard! It was making me nuts! I was going every week to New York to Sonny. He’d made me do my paradiddles, drags, flams, and I developed some good technique to where I can put that beat right where I want it. I know exactly where I’m going when I’m real relaxed. My level of consistency has been raised to where even on a bad night—it’s good. On a real good night I hit that “sweet-spot” every time. My shoulders are moving and I’m grooving because the beat’s in the right place. If you can’t play it slow—you can’t play it! It’s an amazing thing because it’s so conceptual. I was saying, “God, I’m never going to get this. I don’t understand it.” It hadn’t filtered into my mind to feel that space between the beats.
Sonny’s a real technician. He’s very much into having you hold the sticks properly. This is what I needed! I had all the feeling in the world. There isn’t a drummer anywhere who has more feeling for rock than me. But what I needed was the technique. The technique will give you the control. That’s why Steve Gadd has such incredible control, because of this technique. That comes from his jazz background. He’s a jazz drummer— he’s not a rock drummer. I’m a rock drummer and I’ve got technique. I can play a blisteringly fast single-stroke roll, but I wanted to be able to play achingly slow and learn where that space was.
Sonny had me playing with very full wrist and arm movements, very slowly. It hurt my wrists. I had to develop muscles that I’d never used. It was just frustrating, man. Zen and the Art of Archery is a great book. I read it a lot. I re-read it because it teaches you to hold the moment—which is very important. You’ve got to center yourself. I’m very centered. When I play, people say: “You don’t move around! You don’t throw your hands around! You don’t shake your head! You don’t wear a T-shirt! How can you wear a suit all night?” Well . . . that’s how I play. I always wore a suit when I was a kid. Even through the whole psychedelic era I wore a suit. Towards the middle Seventies I was into T-shirts, but I was always really into the Soul review look. I was into Al Jackson.
What makes a ballet dancer like Baryshnikov great is that when he leaps into the air . . . he can hold it there! He can hold that moment. Holding that moment until the last possible second is what it’s all about. That’s when you get the tension. It’s that that I aspire to; the ideal that I’d like to attain as often as I can. That’s what practicing real slow does for you. It teaches you the sense of time and to learn the space between beats.
SF: Did you practice everything that slow?
MW: Yeah. I would do a paradiddle at a metronome setting of 60 which is so slow that you could go out and have a sandwich between beats! But, it really taught me. Bruce asked me to address the problem two months into The River, which eventually took fourteen months. So, I had a long stretch ahead of me. But I said, “This is what I have to do. There’s no choice.”
I used to play real hard and I’d have to change my Black Dot drum heads every night. This went on for the whole Darkness On the Edge of Town tour. The tom tom heads on my drums now, I put on sixty to seventy concerts ago. That shows you the difference in my playing, and I’m using Ambassador heads now; double-headed drums. What I do onstage is exactly what I do in the studio. There’s no difference. Same drums, same cymbals, same tuning. Sometimes I use a tighter snare tuning, like on “Ramrod,” but basically it’s the same.
So, I was trying to find out how certain drummers played so perfectly in time with such great feeling. Relaxation was the key. Those drummers are savoring the moment. They’re not thinking about the moment they’re playing. They’re not thinking about what they’ve done or of what they’re going to do. Everything is in slow motion. They have the time to set up what they’re going to do properly.
My time problem wasn’t really when I was keeping the beat. Most of our material is twelve-bar blues. I play a verse in straight time, and then play a fill. That’s where I’d rush. In the fill. I’d always come back in and rush the first beat after the fill because I’d be afraid I wouldn’t get back in time. Then I’d fall right back into the groove. So that’s what I worked on and when I play a fill now, I feel everything. Time stops for me when I play a fill. That first beat that I end the fill on is still part of the fill, and it better be in the right place.
SF: That’s an interesting concept, thinking of the first beat after the fill as part of the fill.
MW: In that instance the drummer is the only one playing the transition. We’re talking mainly about rock music. It happens in jazz, too, but you can be a little freer with the time in jazz. When you’re recording pop records they don’t care if you can play a drum solo. They want you to be rock solid. You get hired to be able to do it the first time right. Ninety percent of doing it right is keeping time.
SF: Did you ever discuss the timekeeping problem with Purdie?
MW: I went to everybody! I went to Steve Gadd. They all said, “Relax.” Purdie said, “Pay attention to the bass drum. The bass drum is very important. A lot of drummers on records stop playing the bass drum when they play a fill. DON’T STOP THE BASS DRUM!” Purdie is always playing his figure on the bass drum. That’s what he told me to do. The biggest help, believe it or not, was Buddy Rich.
We had a rehearsal one day at Bruce’s and Buddy Rich was playing at Brookdale College. This was the winter of ’80. I drove over and I asked to see his road manager. I said, “I met Buddy before, and I’d just like to say hello. Would it be alright?” He said, “Yeah, sure. Come on.” So I went back on the bus and I couldn’t call him “Buddy.” I called him Mr. Rich. He said, “Nah. Call me Bud dy.” He remembered me—which was amazing—because we’d met about a year before that at The Bottom Line.
We started talking and went over to his drums and just stood there. I started talking to him about drums. He was very receptive and he started talking about matched grip versus traditional. He asked, “How do you play?” I said, “Well, I hold the sticks matched.” I’d mentioned that I was working on my time problem. Buddy said, “You can’t keep time if you play like that. You don’t have any facility around the drumset.” Buddy will switch sometimes to a matched grip, which I do too if I want to play really hard. But when I played that way I started noticing that my shoulders were up in the air and I had all this tension. If it’s relaxed there’s no tension. If you came up behind me now during a concert and felt my bicep, it would feel real spongy. It wouldn’t be hyperextended. Buddy said, “Try to play like that sometime.”
I went to see Buddy four times in a row over the next two weeks. I got to stand behind him and watch how he played and I really got to see his style. It’s all wrists. He plays better than anybody and he gets better all the time.
When I practiced in my back room I always practiced traditional. But, I always recorded using matched grip. We did the first part of our River tour and my time was a little better, but not great. Then we did a winter tour and for some reason my playing was not happening. We came home in March and the last show was the best we ever did, musically. That’s what we strive for. We’re not interested in energy and power. We’re interested in being musical. We want to sound good. We don’t want to go up there and have people go home with bleeding ears. We’re a musical rock and roll band—that’s why people come to see us. We’re respected rock musicians. There are a lot of rock musicians who aren’t respected. It’s a shame because it’s a question of taste and musicality.
SF: Do you ever work with a click track in the studio? If so, how do you feel about it?
MW: If you can get past the ego thing that you don’t have perfect time, a click track’s a really good studio tool. Sometimes if you have a track to do, it just isn’t going to happen. So, you figure out the tempo and use a click track. It gives you a terrific reference point, and when you take it away it always sounds great. You have to know how to use it. Anything is better than not being able to play a tune. If you can’t play it once, you’re never going to do it because you’re going to be psyched out. I don’t care who you are. I’ve had to play songs in different arrangements twelve to fifteen times! A lot of times I’ll just use the click track.
Playing with a click track is like when you’re driving down a two-lane blacktop on a foggy night and there’s no white lines on the road! You can still make your way but not as securely as if you had the white line.
SF: It must have been incredibly difficult to record The River with that pressure of having to correct a time problem.
MW: How about this: Five minutes after Bruce’s remark, we recorded “To Be True.” The timing on it is pretty good, but it’s some of the best drumming I’ve ever done in my life! And I was so . . . upset! I was almost in tears. But anyway, I have changed it. Bruce came up the other night and hugged me and gave me a kiss. That’s all I need. Two years later I’m still here, so I must’ve gotten it together. You can hear it on The River on certain songs like “I’m A Rocker” and “Ramrod.” Those things are rock steady. “Out In The Street” is one of the worst bits of drumming I’ve ever done.
I came off the February tour and had March off. I sat in the back room and practiced just with my left hand. I was determined I was going to lick this prob lem once and for all. Our first date was in Germany and I went in and my whole attitude changed. I dressed up to go t the soundcheck. I had a nice pair of pants, nice shirt, nice sport jacket. There were two big monitors next to me and I told the sound guy to get rid of them. “Just give me a little speaker right behind me. I want it soft.”
I sat up there and played like I was in my back room all night. Using traditional grip all night! That was the first time I ever played a concert like that. My time was great! Steve Van Zandt, who is one of my drum mentors, said, “Man, it was an amazing thing how you were able to do that. To look at the problem, plug into it, solve it, and play great like that tonight. You really did it. You really played great.”
SF: Then there are those who argue, “What about Billy Cobham? He uses matched grip!”
MW: I read an interview where Billy said, “I’m no timekeeper. I’m a percussionist.” He was one of my favorite drummers for a long time, and he was very innovative. When you play like that you don’t have to excuse yourself for anything. I’m not saying that playing with traditional grip is going to work for everybody. I’m saying that if you have a time problem—try it. It worked for me. Some guys aren’t that precise and don’t care what their drumming sounds like. I happen to want to make it better all the time. Purdie doesn’t play traditional and he’s the best timekeeper in the world. So it depends on the drummer.
There’s the old Moeller method, the teacher who taught Jim Chapin. The old whip motion. Well, that’s what it is. When you get that you get the whole follow-through. The follow-through is the whole thing; the extra little edge on the ball.
There’s a terrific book called The Sweet-Spot Theory In Time. It’s an athletic book. The physical aspect of drumming is athletic. Time is athletic. This book deals strictly with the concept of time and motion in space. The perfect meeting of the ball, the bat, and the velocity of the swing. You can feel it when you hit a ball solidly and all those things come together. You can hear that sound when a home run is hit in Yankee Stadium. You can hear it on a drumset! I can hear it when I’m playing. When everything comes together and you’re grooving—that’s the sweet-spot. It’s on a tennis racket, a golf club, a bat, and it’s in a drumstick. It’s in hitting the cymbals and snare drum in the right spot.
At the end of the song “Darkness On The Edge of Town” I play a quarter-note triplet and end up with one snare shot that sets up the next passage perfectly. Visually, in my mind, it sets up some guy riding out into the sun. It’s like a whip crack. The perfect spot. That’s what I’m talking about. I don’t do it all the time but I try for it all the time.
We’re probably one of the loudest bands going. Us and The Who. When we get rocking we’re loud, and I don’t ever play that hard. There are times onstage where I just barely touch the snare drum.
SF: That has a lot to do with the drum mic’s, doesn’t it?
MW: Yeah. We’ve got a great sound mixer, Bruce Jackson. He’s the best. It’s a compromise on both our parts, and we’ve worked to where we can go in any hall and get a great drum sound. That’s the hardest instrument to get to sound good because it’s acoustic. We have our basic snare drum sound which is the center. You always hear the snare drum. If you lose the drums, you lose the beat. And when you’re playing to 20,000 people you’ve got to hear the beat! So I always lay it down so you’ll hear it. I’m always hitting the snare drum. I do most of my fills on the snare, and I do specialty fills on the tom-toms. I use the tom toms a lot when I keep time.
Good time might not get you a job, but if you have bad timing you’re not going to keep a job. That’s an important thing for young kids to realize. It gets glossed over a lot.
SF: In Bruce Springsteen’s music, a drummer overplaying would be totally out of context.
MW: Right. To play with Bruce and the “E” Street Band you really have to understand the roots of rock and roll. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t know where he was coming from or where his music’s coming from. We’re a very authentic rock and roll band. New wave and heavy metal is not authentic rock and roll. We come out of the tradition of Buddy Holly and Elvis. A lot of kids think that rock drumming started with John Bonham and Carmine Appice. They’re both terrific drummers but they’re not what I consider classic rock drummers.
SF: Who are the classics?
MW: Oh, D. J. Fontana, Hal Blaine, Bernard Purdie to some extent, Al Jackson. Even a lot of the guys you never heard of who played on a lot of the old records. A guy who’s very underrated is Mel Taylor with the Ventures. Levon Helm is somebody that I would consider a classic rock and roll drummer. He’s one of my favorites. He’s just so funky and his sense of timekeeping is fantastic. The guy who played sessions with Little Richard was a monster drummer.
SF: That was Earl Palmer.
MW: Fantastic! Jim Keltner is one of the best, and so is Roger Hawkins. I suggest that people get The Greatest Hits of Percy Sledge to learn how to play behind the beat. That was Roger. That’s some of the greatest rock and roll, rhythm and blues drumming that has ever been recorded. I listen to that a lot.
I listen to The Who a lot. Keith Moon was just great. He was a departure from the classic rock drummer, but he was the Buddy Rich of rock and roll.
If you look at the old films of Ringo—which is what I do—there’s nobody that played rock and roll better than him. He was a powerhouse, swinging drummer. He kept incredible grooves.
SF: How about Charlie Watts?
MW: Definitely. He’s a great example of what I mean by being relaxed. He’s just a terrific drummer. Great fills and great ideas. I loved Mike Hugg with the original Manfred Mann band in the Sixties. Bobby Elliot with The Hollies. All those Sixties drummers were really unique. The guy from The Zombies had great fills. The drum figure on “She’s Not There” is a classic.
One of my favorite drummers is Irv Cottier with Frank Sinatra. He’s like a rock. He swings great, but he can really rock. Guys like he and I playing behind guys like Sinatra and Springsteen—we’re lucky. Bruce does everything. So the direction of the band is very, very defined and pronounced.
SF: When you’re recording, does Bruce generally come in with whole songs or is it ideas that the band develops?
MW: Sometimes he has general ideas and there’s a lot of input. “Miami” Steve is very helpful to him. In those situations I know what to play. I know how to play Bruce Springsteen music. So that’s what I do! When somebody hires me to do a Meatloaf record, for instance, I might play slightly different. I’ll play my way but tailor it to the situation. Bruce has a very good idea of what he wants most of the time. And we’ve been together so long we just know how to play as a band.
SF: If you know that your next record is going to sell a million copies, does that affect your creativity?
MW: You don’t know if you’re going to! It probably could, in a lot of cases, affect the creativity of the main songwriter. Not in our case. I don’t think Bruce thinks like that. He doesn’t take absolutely anything for granted, especially his audience. That’s what keeps you honest. My job is . . . I go in and I play the drums. So my thing doesn’t really depend on public opinion too much. In that sense I’m kind of a hired hand. But that’s okay. I make my contribution.
I was talking to my father last night. He’s older and hasn’t been well lately and we were just talking, philosophically, about life and what matters. He was saying that he’s had a lot of business reversals that affected our whole family. But, he always dealt honestly with people; always maintained a respectable and responsible attitude, and he doesn’t really have any regrets. My father is the happiest man I’ve ever met. I said to him, “From here on in, I don’t have any regrets either because we’ve done it. No matter what we do from now on—we did it. We played great music to great audiences and we’re respected.” You know, no matter what I do in a drumming way—I played on Bruce Springsteen’s albums! I could do a million sessions, jingles, and commercials, and it wouldn’t mean anything compared to playing with Bruce and this band. It’s as if I played on “Johnny B. Goode” or “Lucille.”
SF: You told me that Bruce inspires you. What are the qualities he has that you find inspiring?
MW: His honesty. His sense of values. His fairness. He’s an amazingly fair person. He’s got a real sense of ethics. I’ve never seen anybody work so hard for so long. That’s inspiring.
Some people can browbeat you. I’ve worked with people who don’t respect the people they’re working with. Bruce respects the people he’s with. If you respect someone you get it back. Bruce gives us very little direction. He’s got this technique—I’m sure it’s not a conscious thing—but he’s not constantly nitpicking over details. He lets things flow. In a lot of instances he’ll give you enough rope to hang yourself! We’re all professionals. We’re expected to do a job and we do it. In music, if you’re not doing the job it’s immediately obvious. This is one band where we don’t talk. We play.
I’m lucky to have a job where I have six months off this year. I’ve spent the time building around my house. Becky means more to me than anything in the world. Making her happy, me happy, and having a nice place to live—that’s what it’s about. I went to three Rolling Stones shows and I’ve seen one movie in the last three months. The rest of the time I’ve been home.
There’s a whole other side to life. I took a music course which was real good for me. I’m starting up drum lessons with Sonny Igoe again in a couple of weeks. There’s so much I want to do and being in this band affords me the luxury of being able to do it. I don’t have to hustle every job I can get. It’s funny. You’re talking to me as a drummer, but there’s a whole realm of life outside of drumming that drumming isn’t able to be or utilize.
SF: I never speak to people as “drummers.” I speak with them as human beings. You just happen to play drums. I have a respect for what you’re doing with the drums but . . . Do you think of yourself as a “drummer” or a “person”?
MW: I like to think of myself as a person! Let me tell you something: If this ended tomorrow, of course I’d still play. It wouldn’t be as exciting as this, but you have to prepare for that. Someday we’re not going to be playing. You don’t know what the future is. I have a very low-keyed, simple, lifestyle. I don’t need a lot of fancy things. The greatest relaxation and recreation Becky and I can do is sit around on a rainy Sunday reading, and taking a walk if it clears up. I run everyday. I work out on a Nautilus three times a week religiously. I’m not looking to run to clubs and be seen places. In the music business there’s a big tendency to do that.
SF: The family is important to you.
MW: Family is very important to me. Ultimately that’s what it’s all about. I could survive doing anything. I have enough confidence that I know that anything I set my mind to—I could do. That’s just the way I am. The family is most important. I’m real lucky. I have a wife who is the most amazing person I’ve ever met. She’s the greatest. She makes everything worthwhile. Marriage is the difference between thinking of something as “yours” and thinking of something as “ours,” and not just paying lip service to that concept. It’s a real thing and a total commitment.
I made a commitment to Bruce when I joined his band. Whatever Bruce wants is okay with me. A couple of weeks from now I’m going to get a call: “Rehearsal’s at 2:00 tomorrow.” That’s it! There’s no, “Well, I have something on for tomorrow. I can’t make it.” Or, “Do you think I can make it at 3:30 or 4:00?” I’ll be there at 1:30, tuning my drums. That’s commitment. Any kind of action without commitment doesn’t mean as much. I’m committed to the band and I’m committed to my marriage
You asked if I think of myself as a drummer or a person. When you’re on the road, everything is done for you. Here at home, I’ve got to go to the store and do all the stuff. I’ve often wondered: Did Ringo go to the store? Did Ringo go to the hardware store to fix a leaky faucet? Did he do this stuff or did he have someone do it? I guess I could afford to have someone do it now, but that’s just not me. I just wonder what their personal lives are like.
You have to be with the right person at the right time. That’s exactly what I was with Bruce. I was the right drummer at the right time. He was looking for a guy he could grow with, who would grow with him, and who was exciting. I’m an exciting drummer. I can rock a band. I could’ve been the right drummer for Bruce six months earlier when he had a drummer. The problem didn’t present itself. He would have continued with Ernie Carter, who is a real good drummer. He played on the single “Born To Run.” But, Ernie and David Sancious left the band just as my band was breaking up. So the timing was perfect.
Same thing with Becky. Commitment is very important. You have to be committed, if not in the long run—then at the moment. If you’re afraid to make that commitment as a drummer in drumming— well, that’s the big difference between being a hitter and a non-hitter. I’m a hitter.
SF: Does it feel like you’ve paid a price for success?
MW: Paying dues is not paying a price. Paying dues is a ratio. Your amount of success depends on your flexibility to a great degree. See, I’ll do anything anybody wants me to. I’m like a willow tree. I am totally Mr. Flexible. That’s why I’ve always worked. I’ll play anything you want me to play. I never looked at paying dues as something negative.
I never made a dime drumming—except in the eighth grade when I had a great year playing weddings and Bar Mitzvahs—until I got with Bruce. I never had enough money to move out of my parents’ house. The car I’m driving now is the first new car I’ve ever had. I had used cars. Actually, other than Godspell, this is the first steady money I’ve ever made. To me it was just more experience.
SF: I was telling you about the drummer in the bar band who also works a fortyhour- a-week day job. I asked him if he was ever going to make the total commitment to his band. A lot of guys aren’t willing to do that.
MW: I don’t know if I would do it if I was thirty years old, married, and still playing in a bar band. I don’t know what I’d do. I had no heavy responsibilities. I was really fortunate to have parents who were behind me. I was young enough to where I didn’t have to make that kind of decision. I’m just saying that anytime you play—you’re going to learn something.
Bruce is an adventurer. That’s what makes our act interesting. He leads all of us and we’re right there with him. He knows that the six of us are tuned totally into him one-hundred percent of the time. We’d better be! That’s our job.
SF: Do you miss playing in clubs?
MW: Not at all. Put me in an arena. Really, it doesn’t matter. I like clubs. They’re small and the sound is usually better, but I don’t miss playing in clubs. I don’t depend too much on the audience anyway. It comes from inside. I work off Bruce and the band.
SF: You can’t feel the vibes of the audiences?
MW: Well, if they’re good you definitely pick up the energy. But our audience gets so nuts that it can get distracting if you let them get to you. So, I don’t let them in my space. Our show is not calculated, but it’s effect is that it gets people up no matter what! Because there is something there for everybody. I don’t depend on the audience to give me that extra something to play well. What if you get stuck with a bad audience? You can’t depend on somebody else to do it for you. I hitch my energy up to Bruce a lot. If he’s feeling a little off, I’m going to be a little off. Another time he might be a little off and I might be super compensating and helping him out.
SF: What motivates Bruce? How does he maintain his enthusiasm through all the shows?
MW: He believes in it so much. He believes in the power of rock and roll to move people positively. His raps; his soliloquies about his father; about the right thing to do.
He did a speech when we played a benefit for the Viet Nam veterans. Man, I almost burst into tears. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever heard. Probably one of the most emotional, moving shows we played. You’ve got to picture it: Bruce gives this speech about Viet Nam being like walking down a dark street at night, and you see somebody getting a beating in an alley. You just keep on walking because you don’t want to get involved, but you feel guilty. He likened that to Viet Nam. Then we go onstage and on both sides of us were platforms for the parapalegics in wheelchairs.
We go out and open with “Who’ll Stop The Rain.” And there are these guys without arms and legs. It was so emotional. We played for them. We played great that night.
Over the last three months I’ve had to decompress from being on the road because it’s such an exciting lifestyle. But, that’s what fuels Bruce. He doesn’t want to let anybody down. The show must go on to the nth degree. Bruce said it himself: “When you come out of our show, you’ve got more than money could buy.” That’s important.
SF: You were telling me that Steve Gadd and you were discussing the reason thin drums were better than thick drums. Can you elaborate on that?
MW: Steve said that thin metal drums have the widest frequency response, and I found that to be true. Ludwig made a drum in the Fifties and Sixties called the Acrylite. It was made out of aluminum. That’s a great drum to have and very hard to find. I’ve looked for them! I’m using an old Ludwig, six and a half inch model 402, I think. It’s a very simple chrome drum. That same model now weighs at least ten pounds more than the old model I’m using. It’s the thinness of the drum that really gives you good sound.
I don’t do any endorsements, but Duraline makes the best snare drum head I’ve ever encountered. You can tune them tight and they still sound low. Incredible snare response. They don’t break and you can play brushes on them.
SF: Are you using Duraline snare heads on the bottom?
MW: No, I use an Ambassador on the bottom. I’ve never tried the Duraline snare head, but they sent me some and I’m going to try them. The batter head is the Snare Concert Batter. I haven’t tried them on my tom-toms. Duraline is making the heads different now than the ones I use. They went from a flesh/plastic hoop to an aluminum hoop. For me it changes the sound, but the heads are still great.
SF: What exactly is the drumset you’re using?
MW: I’ll play on pretty much anything as long as the pedals work. I’m not very particular. I like to put extra shellac on the inside of the drums because it makes them a little louder. I don’t like fiberglass drums. I like wood drums with a metal snare. That’s the best combination I’ve had. I just use a stock Ludwig set. I’ve put about twelve to fourteen extra coats of shellac on everything but the snare. I use a Remo Black Diamond bass drum batter head that’s great. I use Ambassadors on the top and bottom of the tom toms. Coated Ambassadors on tour and clear Ambassadors in the studio. There’s a little less “slap” in the studio.
I tune them with a Drum Torque. It’s helpful in remembering where you were at. But, everything has to be equal. You have to keep screws clean. The problem with most American drums is that the hardware is so cheap that it’s hard to machine the screws cheaply enough and still have quality. So, the quality is not really there. That’s why they loosen up and get hard to turn. Sonor drums have excellently machined screws and things.
I use Pearl hardware and a Camco chain pedal. My hi-hat is an old Pearl that they don’t make anymore. See, I don’t like the heavy duty stuff. It’s too hard to work with. The small tom-tom mount is Pearl. It’s the sturdiest and it’s really adjustable where the Ludwig is not that adjustable.
SF: I notice you use a single-headed bass drum. Have you ever considered using a double-headed bass drum?
MW: Yeah, but only in my house. For a concert they’re too boomy. You can’t use them in a show because you’d never hear it. They’re too hard to control. The idea is to cut down on the boominess. You can always add boominess, but it’s very hard to take it out. You don’t get the definition. I like the sound of a double-headed bass drum, but not for rock. It just doesn’t fit.
The thing is to approach playing the bass drum very consistently. In an arena, I used to use too dynamic a level on my bass drum. Some notes you could hear and others you couldn’t. It became a problem because the bass drum would drop out. If the bass drum and snare drop out you lose the groove of the band. In any situation, but especially in an arena, you’d hear the accented notes, but you wouldn’t hear the unaccented notes.
SF: So you try to hit the bass drum notes all at the same volume?
MW: Pretty consistently, yeah. The same with the snare. A lot of rock drummers slam the hell out of their drums, myself included until recently. When you start hitting a drum that hard you’re killing the sound. You can’t expect any instrument to respond if you hit it that hard.
The only thing I’m going to change on my set for our next tour is my floor tom tom. I’m going to go from a 15 x 16 to a 12 x 15. So I’ll have a 9 x 13 small tom and a 12 x 15 floor tom. That’s what I use in the studio and it sounds much better. The 12 x 15 is a tenor drum I had made into a floor tom. It just has better resonance. My floor tom on this last tour sounded okay, but it had a little too much attack. It’s very hard to control that in certain arenas. Now that I’ve played almost every arena, I know what sounds best in which one. The Meadowlands is the best-sounding place I’ve ever played by far.
SF: Do you ever get scared onstage?
MW: No. I feel like I’m sitting in my living room when I’m up there. That’s the most comfortable place for me in the world. When I’m up there for four hours, I’m in that show. My main concern is to keep it happening in the band. If I’m playing bad we don’t sound as good. See, in an arena the drums are the only thing that’s playing on the offbeat. Everything else is playing along and it creates a sound. But the drums are the anchor. If that’s not happening, it’s still going to sound alright, but it’s not going to move people as much. We’re a real dance band. You can really dance to our music.
We played a small arena in Champaign, Illinois, and these two kids had just gotten married and drove from their wedding to the concert. They must’ve been sixteen or seventeen. You know those gates that lead to the inside of an arena? They were standing under this light and you could see them slow dancing. She had a gown and he had a tuxedo. Bruce looked up, saw this, and we stopped what we were doing and started to play “Little Girl I Want To Marry You.” It was fantastic. There were 12,000 people there and we’re playing to these two kids. It turns out they’d driven like two hundred miles to the show. Bruce announced, “We’re going to dedicate this to the two kids up there.”
SF: Another unusual aspect of your band is that you’re not afraid to perform other artist’s material onstage. A lot of bands wouldn’t do that.
MW: That’s half the fun!
SF: In his book, Born to Run, Dave Marsh credits Jon Landau with helping bring the sound of the band together.
MW: He did. Jon is a very important part of the Bruce Springsteen organization. At the time, he had a better perspective on things than anybody else. He saw the obvious shortcomings of the band from the inside and addressed himself to solving the problems. Bruce needed somebody to take care of the organizational part of it. When you get to this level it’s big business. Jon’s very good at that. We don’t have a contract. We don’t have a manager. We’re a band. All I do is play with Bruce. I have no decision-making responsibilities. Like I said, I hitched my star to Bruce’s comet. I do what Bruce does. It’s faith. We work totally on faith. Faith is our number one thing. We didn’t get paid for a long time. There was no money and Bruce had a lot of legal problems.
SF: What did you feel like during that time?
MW: I felt we’d make it. We kept getting better musically.
SF: How were you getting by?
MW: I borrowed money. It was very tough because the organizational thing wasn’t together. For Bruce to have come back is a real credit to him. I think a lot of people would’ve been just sort of blown away by that.
SF: I imagine you grow up pretty fast in the music business.
MW: Oh, you do! You’ve got to take care of business yourself. No one’s going to take care of it for you. That’s the main thing. We’re very loyal to each other as far as bands go. On this type of business level we’re very close, but everybody’s got to watch out for themselves. That means that Bruce doesn’t have to worry about me showing up or not being together when I go to a session. It takes the responsibility of an awful lot of other people. But, it was a couple of hard years there.
SF: Did you ever believe that you wouldn’t pull through?
MW: No. Look, if Bruce went back to playing bars, I wouldn’t leave him.
SF: Did you play during those years?
MW: We toured places that were small and out of the way. A Southern tour. Our profile was very low. We didn’t have a record out so it was hard to do. Bruce had to borrow a tremendous amount of money. They should write a book about that whole experience. It came down to Bruce having to go to court, explain his position and defend himself, which is ultimately his whole thing. It’s on your shoulders whatever you do. You’ve got to pay the price. It’s a very important lesson to learn because it makes you grow up very fast. When you make the conscious move from the responsibility of your actions lying with your parents to yourself—that’s when I think you enter into becoming a responsible person. That goes along with it.
Drumming is what I do and I’m fortunate to be able to do it, and it’s the reason we came together, but it goes onto a whole life philosophy. Drums don’t exist in a vacuum. I’ve got a million ideas about drumming, but ask me about sheetrocking, too. It’s not easy to play drums well. I’m learning all the time. I’ve got a strange situation to look back on. Like Jim Keltner said in his MD interview, there are things he listens to where he was really out of it and regrets it. Those things come back to haunt you. Ask any musician and the same thing happens. You just wish you could’ve hit the mark a little better. There’s a slowdown in “Badlands” which is just terri ble. Well, the whole Darkness On The Edge of Town was darkness on the edge of town! It was bad for everybody. That’s the whole story of the lawsuit. How Bruce became a man and went through that rite of passage, and we all did because of that. To a lesser degree, perhaps. I was involved in a very tumultuous relationship that ended during that record. I was sick; badly ill during that whole record. It was real hard to make.
There’s a great line on that album; “Poor man want to be rich. Rich man want to be King. Rich man’s not satisfied ’til he rules everything.” It’s a great line because it’s about that insatiable quality. I’d say working with Bruce has been the most remarkable experience of my life.
I was listening to Bruce’s second record, which is one of my favorite albums. I listened to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” There’s a point where the circusmaster leans over and whispers into the little kid’s ear: “If you want to join the big top—climb aboard! Indiana’s our next stop.” And it’s funny how here I am, I got on the train, I joined the tour and that was it. I’ve been touring and playing with Bruce ever since. It’s a very romantic song about just jumping aboard! Just hitching your star to Bruce’s comet. That’s why I fit in this band. I wouldn’t fit in maybe with something else. I need that loyalty; that sense of being in a band. I always have. I’ve always been in bands. I did those years of independent work but I didn’t like it. To me, there’s got to be something more than just a paycheck. There’s got to be the camaraderie that you get with guys on the road.
Steve Van Zandt just did an album. He wanted to just rehearse, get the songs ready, go in and just cut them live in the studio. It was a remarkable experience. Bruce was there. Some of the guys from the “E” Street Band played. There was never any talk of three-hour sessions. We rehearsed ten to twelve hours a day. It was just great, like being in a garage band, and I hope I never lose that. I hope our band always keeps that, because I think that’s one of the things that sets us off from everything else. You get bigger and there’s a tendency to lose sight of why you started it in the first place. In this band there’s still a lot of that feeling there, and that’s real important to me.
Listen, if Bruce came up tomorrow and told me he couldn’t pay me anymore, I wouldn’t leave him. I’d play with him for nothing. He’s that inspiring to me. I just always wanted to play, and I think that’s what I could say to young drummers. Just want to play.
Max’s Drums on Stage
by Robert Carr
From a recording or sound reinforcement standpoint, rock and roll drums have always been the toughest instrument to reproduce. Roadies, and the musician himself, can spend hours setting up and tuning a kit, especially with radical shifts in atmospheric conditions that touring groups encounter while traveling. In addition, engineers and producers then put in their time selecting the right microphones, positioning them correctly, and finding the perfect combination of bass, mid-range, and treble equalization to make the drums cut and sound like cannons from the Crimean War. Fortunately there is a better way.
The chief audio engineer for the Springsteen show is Bruce Jackson, whose credits include the Elvis Presley tours from 1971-1977, Three Dog Night, Cat Stevens, Rod Stewart and more.
“There’s no comparison between before and after Bruce Jackson started doing the sound,” says Max. “Before, you couldn’t even hear the drums in the audience. We’re a tough band to mix. He’s done some amazing things.”
The first major consideration was finding an easy and efficient way to set up the kit for every show. Bruce came up with the idea of constructing a multi-purpose frame. He contacted an aircraft welder in Lititz, Penn., named Bill Carter, and contracted him to build an aircraft-grade, tubular-steel skeleton. The bass drum slides in against the inside center of the U shape, and eliminates the common headache of drum creep. The floor tom legs fit along the right arm of the U (All of these descriptions are from the drummer’s perspective). The tall poles on both sides are cymbal stands that won’t fall over. The bases for the hi-hat and snare drum stands are welded in place, so they won’t move either. Set-up time takes about 10 minutes, if you take your time. The drums are always in exactly the right spot from one performance to the next, and don’t budge.
Weinberg feels that, “The best thing about this rack is that it keeps everything consistent. On a tour like this, it takes a tremendous amount of pressure off me in terms of trying to get the drums positioned. Now they’re in the optimum places. I can hit that cymbal as hard as I can, and it doesn’t move. “For the next tour we’re going to build a big padded box for the drums—an Anvil case that fits over the top of the whole drum set. We’ll just take the cymbals off, cover up the set, and wheel them into the truck.”
Another major consideration for the group was to avoid the typical stage clutter that accompanies any situation where the drums have to be miked. Until his popularity forced him to book huge arenas, Springsteen preferred the intimacy of smaller venues and freedom from semis full of equipment. That same “bar band” look was something that everybody wanted when they started playing the bigger halls. The drum frame was the answer to avoiding the forest of mic’ stands that usually surrounds a rock and roll drummer on stage.
The small extensions protruding from the sides of the cymbal stands and from the center of the front rack section are quick release microphone mounts. They provide the engineer and roadies with a way of setting up the mic’s in a short amount of time, and insure that their placement is consistent. “The bass drum sounds the same every night,” continues Max, “because the mic’s are always in the same place. With no mic’ stands in the way, it’s easier to see what’s going on around the stage. But the thing I like the most is that the whole set-up looks so clean. People comment on how small the kit looks on stage. My whole answer is “Less is more.”
The microphones that Jackson chose for the particular drums are an important ingredient in transmitting Max’s sound out to the audience. The mic’ for the kick drum is a Beyer 88. The rack tom and floor tom are each picked up by a Sennheiser 421, and the hi-hat with an AKG 451. Countryman EM 101’s are located underneath the cymbals.
Jackson feels there’s a better way to deal with the cymbals. “In their present location, the 101’s pick up a lot of tom sound that gets reflected off the underside of the cymbals. What I’d like to try is drilling a hole in the top of the mic’ stand, and running a stiff cable up through the center that will support a small EM 101 above the cymbal. Hopefully, that will eliminate the drum leakage and still retain a clean look to the set.”
The snare has three microphones for three different sounds—a slightly modified Shure SM 81 and a Sennheiser 441 miking the top, and another SM 81 picking up the snares underneath. These separate tones are blended by Bruce Jackson at the control console. On stage, the monitor mixer feeds a different snare sound to each player. Springsteen likes to hear the Sennheiser sound in his monitors. Guitarist “Miami” Steve Van Zandt prefers the top SM 81. Max’s mix is a blend of both.
Max doesn’t tune his drums for how they sound to him, but how they sound out in the audience. “The tuning of the snare drum in our band is very important; it can’t be too low or too high. When Bruce Jackson tells me it’s time to change the head, I change it, and I always get the exact same sound every time. They’re very consistent. The problem with Black Dots or Ambassadors is that they dent, and I have to load them up with tape to take out the overtones. I use just a little bit of tape in the center with the Duraline. I’ve never found anything better.
“I tune my drums to the point where Bruce thinks he can get the optimum sound in the room with his EQ (equalization). I do have to tune the drums; I don’t depend strictly on EQ for the sound. If the drum doesn’t sound good, no amount of EQ is going to correct it. It’s exactly the same approach you have to take in the studio.”
In addition, Bruce Jackson resorted to gating the toms and kick drum to clean up the leakage. As soon as the volume drops below a certain volume, the gate, or filter, shuts off and lets no more signal through to the PA amps and speakers. “The gate shuts off too fast for the stage monitors, so it’s not used on that mix. I use it for the house mix, because I can’t let the drums ring out too much in a big place like the Los Angeles Sports Arena; it just adds to the confusion of bouncing sound. All I need is the initial attack, and some tone. The gate gives me the loudest part of the drum sound, then shuts off to eliminate a large part of the cymbal leakage.”
Max Weinberg and Bruce Jackson haven’t taken this set-up into the studio yet, but they’re anxious to try it out. There will be a different set of drums, but the tubular frame will be there with the same microphones and a couple of added overhead mic’s.
“The hardest thing when you’re doing so much traveling to different places every couple of days is to get the drum set to feel the same from night to night. We’ve done 150 concerts so far this year, and up to this point it’s been convenient, consistent and concise. It may not be perfect, but it’s certainly an improvement over what we had.”